Athletes are Not Superheroes or Evil Villains. Also, Howard Megdal on The NBA and Labor Rights

As sports fans, many of us have been trained to view athletes as superheroes or villains. The scandal-fed modern news cycle and ESPN’s endless mythologizing makes it easy to remove the human element in regard to professional athletes until they do disturbingly human things like Ray Rice or Michael Vick. Then hold them up as human sacrifices to be burned at the stake. Very few people condone punching women in the face or forcing your dogs to kill each other. It’s easy. And it’s even easier when an athlete who has been endlessly praised is then taken down. You can almost hear the “whoosh-ing” sound of their fall. Psychologically, it should remind you of high school. If sports and sports media enables a widespread popularity contest, An athletic scandal is no different from the popular high school athlete getting suspended from school. Those who envied him and hated how loved he was get to celebrate. Isn’t that what we see…over and over and over?

While few are uncertain about their view of Ray Rice, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gets to plead ignorance, hoping the media moment passes like a thunderstorm. Some are asking for Goodell to get fired, some are hoping he resigns, and many, who still have love for the National Football League, are just waiting until their team plays on Sunday, so they can get back to escaping from the reality of that ugly thing we know as the “human element” and fall back into the superhero/villain routine. Goodell gets the special treatment.

Howard Megdal, writing for Vice Sports, has penned an excellent examination of the NBA and it’s Labor situation and free agency, following the Paul George injury and Marc Cuban’s asinine comments on what should be done about NBA players playing in international competition. Before I excerpt from Megdal’s piece, I’ll mention a news item related to Paul George after the horrific injury he suffered in late July. I had just read Lee Jenkins’ compassionate piece on Paul George and resilience. Then I see that Paul George bought a Ferrari to “lift his spirits.” How is it that an athlete buying a luxury sports car is news? All that I can see it doing is two things: 1) Make people who want to live vicariously through Paul George’s success feel better about themselves. 2) Make people go back to envying and vilifying an athlete/celebrity for buying a ridiculously expensive sports car. This isn’t news. This is the bullshit that we are fed.

Now an excerpt from Megdal’s piece on the NBA and Labor:

Cuban mentioned the NBA’s willingness “to commit what amounts to more than a billion dollars in salaries” to the cause of international basketball. Ah, but which salaries? Player salaries. Mark Cuban’s not committing a damn thing. He doesn’t own his players, as much as his dehumanizing description of human beings as “player salaries” would make you think otherwise.

Those player salaries, by the way, were earned because the league profited from selling the chance to watch those players—in person, on television, intermittently on League Pass when it decides to function—not as some independent entity that, say, Dirk Nowitzki is lucky to have found. Those player salaries, incidentally, that are part of a shrinking percentage of NBA revenue, revenue that keeps on growing and disproportionately flowing back to… Mark Cuban.

Which brings us to the other half of the equation: Whose risk? The player’s risk. Sure, if the best 450 players collectively disappeared from the NBA, the league would have a problem. But any one player? Well, the business model survives. Paul George will miss a season—you can be sure the NBA will make a ton of money this season anyway.

Fun fact, Paul George has a max contract, an Orwellian phrase if one ever existed. Remember, we’re supposed to honor a team’s desires here because they’ve invested so much money in a player. Of course, it is the artificial construct of the salary cap, and the tightly controlled salaries within it, that had an otherworldly player like George limited to five years, $90 million on a “max contract” in the first place. In a true free market, George would make many tens of millions more. Instead, thanks to a swell-for-owners collective bargaining agreement, he’s getting paid like Brian McCann of the New York Yankees. McCann is a fine player, but he’s not even one of the ten best players in Major League Baseball, or close to it.

But of course, the players accepted the current salary cap and a greatly reduced share of total league revenue following the most recent lockout. The common, condescending perspective that players owe their livelihood to the owners helped the owners in the court of public opinion, as it so often does during labor struggles in professional sports. But here we are, with players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony forced to choose between getting paid as close to fair value as the system allows or taking a pay cut to play for a winning team, like Tim Duncan does. Naturally, Duncan is held up as a model without anyone asking “Why on Earth is that a choice he’s forced to make?”

The common refrain: because he makes “enough.” Never mind that we’re talking about money that exists because Duncan and Anthony are so compelling to watch that millions of people the world over tune in to do just that. Never mind that this money, if not spent on Anthony and Duncan, isn’t going to hire more teachers or provide health care to needy children. It’s going into the pockets of owners who were so unhappy with their “more than enough” that they locked out the players and reduced their share of the league’s revenue from 57 percent to around 50 percent.

That’s 50-50—you earn 50 percent by doing things no one else on the planet can, and we’ll earn 50 percent by letting you.

Read the rest here: https://sports.vice.com/article/the-next-nba-labor-battle-is-already-here

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NBA Ownership and Tone-Deafness: A Brief Consideration of Bruce Levenson’s Email, Atlanta, and Myopia

Maybe one of the reasons the topic of race continues to dominate our culture in general and sporting culture specifically, is that so many people are unclear just what their own views on the topic actually are. Humans tend to fear what they don’t know. In an increasingly segregated America, fear and anxiety seem to be growing steadily. Only when it bubbles over in relatively obscure places like Ferguson, Missouri or Donald Sterling’s living room, do we actually engage in any kind of national conversation. The rest of the time it is so ubiquitous, so omnipresent and systemic as to be rendered nearly invisible. You know the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind?” That’s how most people live. Instead of occasionally considering what is beyond their sight, whether it be an issue of race, genocide, or domestic violence, most people keep the ugly and complicated stuff out of mind. Life is messy enough with all the little errands and responsibilities. Most people never wade out into the deeper water.

In academia, race is often described as a “social construct.” Unless you somehow believe in strict genetic differences, and you are uneducated regarding concepts like “nature” vs. “nurture,” the idea of race is complex. America’s empire grew with the banishment of Native Americans, and the enslavement of African Americans. An “us” versus “them” view of the world was made possible by America’s founding fathers, rationalized by the desire for capital, the use of guns, and the fact that they themselves were escaping from brutal situations.

Let’s start there because the African-American wealth concentrated in and around Atlanta today is in part a response to that original enslavement. What was the “Back to the South” movement, if not a desire to reclaim a place that once was the root of so much misery and pain? According to In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,

Many migrants – a majority of them college-educated – seek economic opportunities in the reascending southern economy; some want to escape deteriorating conditions in northern cities; others return to be nearer to kin, to care for aging relatives, or to retire in a familiar environment with a better quality of life than that found in the urban North.

All, in some way, reclaim the South as their home, the place that African Americans built and where their roots run deep.”

I’m not a citizen of Atlanta. I have not spent much time in the South. I don’t pretend to know why the Atlanta Hawks are the second-least Google-searched NBA team in the league, though Nate Silver’s research shows a strong connection between unpopular internet hoops teams and race. Based on Silver’s numbers, the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies have the highest proportion of African-American fans in the NBA and are among the least searched for. That may say as much about internet tendencies, which are often class-dominated, as it does about race.

In any case, the Hawks were estimated to have lost approximately $13 million (after revenue sharing) last season (via Grantland’s NBA front office sources). This despite the team playing relatively well–especially before a season-ending injury to center Al Horford.

Soon-to-be-former Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson’s now notorious email has been dissected by Albert Burneko (Deadspin), Rembert Browne (Grantland) and William Rhoden (NY Times), among others. Instead of talking about how racist the email was (somewhat), or defending Levenson’s myopic prose as merely a businessman’s attempt at profitability, let’s talk about reality.

Reality always has been and always will be subjective. Being culturally aware, intellectually curious, and self-reflective are ways in which to deal with reality’s subjectivity…and not expose yourself as a bumbling fool. I believe the official business term is CYA: “cover your ass.” Of course, part of the reason why modern media works the way it does is that the bumbling fools have more documented avenues in which to expose themselves (more graphically) than they have in the past.

Everyone paying attention (not enough of us) knew former Clippers owner Donald Sterling was an out-of-touch old man and a racist long before his recorded voice became national news/satire. Real estate was the source of Sterling’s wealth. His treatment of tenants resulted in the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history, as Dave Zirin wrote about long before the recent scandal in his book, Bad Sports, examining a handful of the most despicable sports owners in America.

Most NBA owners are not known by even hardcore NBA fans and NBA media as much of anything. Unless they own high-profile teams or do something especially ridiculous, we rarely hear about sports owners. Especially owners who belong to ownership groups.

An example of a mild case of tone-deafness: Warriors owner Joe Lacob openly discussing how he and new Warrior coach Steve Kerr know each other well through playing golf together (highlighting the impact of exclusive membership which clearly impacts hiring practices). Read Marcus Thompson’s excellent take on the Warriors, Joe Lacob and the firing of Mark Jackson here.

From Thompson’s piece (for the blog of the San Jose Mercury News):

I believe race can be a factor without malice being part of it. The reality is sports is a place where race, culture, class, religion and every other dividing line collide. It is naive to think issues won’t arise out of that. I know people like to view sports as an escape from real life. But your favorite escape is fashioned by real life, and it’s importance to our society has made it real life. So these things can’t be avoided.

An example of a more virulent case of tone-deafness, which deeply alienates any progressive citizens of Atlanta: Hawks soon-to-be-former co-owner Bruce Levenson’s email. Levenson’s underlying thesis is that the Hawks would sell more tickets if they could just keep the black fans away. By emphasizing the need for “35-55 year old white males” to buy season tickets, and highlighting the perceived fears and racial biases of that non-ticket-buying demographic, the content and tone of Levenson’s email go from a somewhat reasonable marketing-brainstorm to an entirely detached tone, which aims to pin-down the complexities of black-white relations in modern Georgia. Levenson makes all kinds of claims about arena operations being “too black.” It is alienating and speculatively racist. It is as if Levenson believes white money can save the Hawks, but African-American money can’t.

The whole debacle was sparked by a quote read (presumably to ownership) by Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry, who was apparently reciting a scouting report (without editing out the inherent racism). The quote was regarding then free-agent Luol Deng: “He is still a young guy overall. He is a good guy overall. But he is not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t say that in a bad way.”

Before entering the front office, Ferry played in the NBA. He was a Caucasian power forward without any African in him…except the African that is in every human being…the universally African roots of the homo sapien.

In a city as huge and as heavily African-American as Atlanta, how many of the seven original members of the Atlanta Spirt Group (who bought the Hawks in 2004) are African-American?

Zero.

Are you surprised?

No.

Why?

Because, as Chris Rock informed us so eloquently years ago, there is a gigantic difference between being rich and being wealthy. You must be wealthy to belong to the inner circle of NBA Owners.

What might surprise you, though, is that there is one African-American owner in the NBA.. His name is Michael Jordan. Back when His Airness was in his playing days, he was more concerned with money than politics. The legendary Jordan refused to endorse Harvey Gantt, a Democrat who was then running to unseat long-time Republican senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Jordan’s famous reply, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

What can we conclude about the Hawks debacle? It’s about money….and race…and the idea of ownership and appealing to the wealthiest and whitest. It’s about cultural blind-spots and speculation about discomfort. It’s about Atlanta and yet…there is more than one version of modern Atlanta. It’s not all black and white.

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The Celtics and Rondo: Endless Waves of Speculation

At this point, it feels less like speculation and more like inevitability. The Boston Celtics are one of the NBA’s beloved franchises, with a devoted base of fans who are particularly active on the internet (unlike…say…the Atlanta Hawks). Those Celtics fans over the age of 60 have been spoiled by the franchise’s historical dominance dating back to the late 1950’s. Seventeen NBA championships in all. Sixteen between 1957 and 1986. Younger Celtics fans, especially those born after 1985, have the Pierce-Garnett-Allen-Rondo years (2007-2012) to appreciate Celtics greatness. Being born in 1980 means I have foggy memories of the end of the Bird-McHale-Parish-DJ Celtics of the 80’s. It means that I came of age during an especially mediocre period of Celtics history (1993-2001) when the Celtics refused to win more than 36 games in any season, in addition to absorbing the premature death of Celtics star Reggie Lewis in 1993. Pervis Ellison? Check. David Wesley? Check. Stojko Vrankovic? Indeed. Today’s Celtics are in danger of getting stuck amid the flotsam and jetsam of the Association. Entering “Year Two” of a rebuilding project that many are hoping does not resemble the Big Dig (in which construction lasted from 1991-2006).

The NBA rumor mill in the age of Twitter is less like a mill and more like an garment factory in southeast Asia that is known to exploit its workers and spit out misshapen clothing and damaged fingers. Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who is now the last man standing from the 2007-08 Celtics championship team, was 21 when he found himself as the lucky young starting PG in a starting lineup full of NBA legends Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. As we head toward the 2014-15 season, Rondo remains the subject of endless trade speculation, which started shortly after the Pierce-Garnett-to-Brooklyn trade last July. Recently, renowned Boston reporter Jackie MacMullan was recorded in an off-camera moment by ESPN’s “Around the Horn” crew remarking on the fact that Rondo “wants out” of Boston.

 

This piece of information is equivalent to kerosene on the already glowing fire of speculation. There are Celtics fans, like myself, who are pro-keeping-Rondo (either for his ability and potential leadership or the fact that the demand for Rondo on the trade market is not all that high). Then there are the trade-Rondo-yesterday fans (many influenced by the various media hype-men who never stop dreaming up trades. The truth is likely neither that Rondo is a savior or that a trade of Rondo would solve all the Celtics issues (shot-blocker, scorer, few veterans). 

My issue is this: being a fan of a team becomes brutal and unbearable when impatience surrounds everything about your team. If there is a trade, okay. If there isn’t, okay. But the unending string of barely-substantiated rumors is simply deflating. If a Kevin Love trade provided a glimmer of hope for some, the fact that Love was traded to Cleveland made life harder for those hopeful Celtics fans. Rondo has been in an impossible situation for most of his career:

Consider:

  • He was 21 years old and asked to be the starting point guard on a championship contending team.
  • He came out of college with a jump shot that was best described as a “work in progress.”
  • When he emerged as a triple-double threat, he was soon after criticized for worrying too much about his assist numbers.
  • When he took over several playoff series (1st Rd vs Chicago, 2009; 2nd Rd vs Cleveland, 2010) he was rightly praised for his versatility and passing genius. Soon after, he was criticized for not playing at that otherworldly level throughout the grind of the 82-game regular season.
  • Throughout Rondo’s success, he was always viewed (somewhat reasonably) as the beneficiary of an uber-talented team where his weaknesses (shooting) were minimized. 
  • As soon as Pierce and Garnett were traded, the unfair assumption (both toward Rondo and toward GM Danny Ainge) was that Rondo would certainly be next. 
  • Over the last fourteen months, Rondo has been rumored to be traded 175 times*. (*note: slight exaggeration)
  • Over the last fourteen months, Rondo has played 30 NBA games. 
  • Yes, every athlete faces unfair criticism, but the amount of heat Rondo has dealt with is entirely out-of-proportion to the amount of criticism that would have been fair.

So…instead of the question, “Will Rondo be traded?” how about the ironic statement: “Rajon Rondo has been traded…for the 175th time.” (The Onion has missed a golden opportunity)

Maybe he will be. Maybe he won’t be. Let’s wait until late October to worry about who will be on the roster this year. Try and enjoy a few months without the speculation. Defend yourself against the media machine. Is Jackie MacMullan telling the truth? Probably. Is Rondo right to deny that he wants out? Yes. Is Danny Ainge now forced to trade him? No. Because throughout the last fourteen months, Danny Ainge has been alternately laughing and pulling his gray hair out whenever a member of the media comes to him with rumors. 

 

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